TAMPA — A progressive Democrat with a track record of criminal justice reforms will face a high-ranking sheriff’s official with firm ideas about law and order in the November race for Hillsborough State Attorney .
Mike Perotti, a former colonel and current legal counsel for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, announced Tuesday that he will challenge State Attorney Andrew Warren.
Perotti, a Republican, declared his candidacy for the county’s top prosecutor job in a news release that hinted at criticisms of Warren’s reform agenda.
“Decriminalization, reduced sanctions, and justice reform cannot overshadow individual accountability and victim advocacy,” Perotti said in the release. "I look forward to bringing my passion and commitment to upholding the law and furthering the interests of justice to the State Attorney’s Office.”
Warren, a Democrat, was elected to the seat in 2016. Since then, he has championed various reforms including the expansion of civil citations for minor crimes, the creation of a conviction integrity unit to root out wrongful convictions, and reduced prosecutions for people accused of driving with suspended licenses.
He announced more than a year ago his intention to run for re-election. As of late December, he had raised more than $270,000 in campaign cash, along with at least another $35,000 in an associated political action committee.
“I’m proud of the progress we’ve made over the past three years,” Warren said Tuesday. “There’s more work to do.”
In an interview Wednesday with the Tampa Bay Times, Perotti said he never had a desire to run for office, but that some people encouraged him to campaign for state attorney given his legal and law enforcement background. He declined to say who had encouraged his candidacy.
“I think our entire Democratic process kind of depends on voters having choices,” he said.
Perotti said he understands some aspects of Warren’s criminal justice philosophy. He mentioned specifically efforts to avoid stigmatizing juvenile defendants and to address issues of mental illness and addiction.
But he spoke critically about what he described as “unilateral policy-making." He said he wants to examine the results of some programs Warren has pursued, including the expansion of civil citations and a program that offers enhanced sanctions to some first-time misdemeanor drunk driving defendants.
“There is a time and a place to enforce the laws,” he said. “My personal opinion should not interfere with my obligation to enforce the law intelligently."
Perotti, 47, is a Tampa native and a graduate of Jesuit High School. He obtained bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Florida. Law enforcement runs in his family: His father is Al Perotti Jr., a retired sheriff’s major who later became the head of security for Tampa Electric Company. His grandfather, Al Perotti Sr., was also a major with the sheriff’s office.
Perotti began his career as an assistant state attorney and later worked in private law practice.
In 2008, he became deputy chief legal counsel for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office under then-Sheriff David Gee. He obtained law enforcement certification and in 2010 was given the rank of major and put in charge of the Orient Road Jail.
He was later promoted to colonel and oversaw operations of the county’s entire jail division. He became the office’s assistant legal counsel in November 2018.
He will continue his work for the Sheriff’s Office while he campaigns for State Attorney, he said.
The challenge sets up what is likely to be an expensive and hotly contested race.
Warren, 43, a former federal prosecutor, was largely unknown locally in 2016 when he announced his run against then-State Attorney Mark Ober.
Although Ober enjoyed widespread name recognition and a largely unblemished reputation, Warren kept him on the defensive, attacking his handling of sex crime cases and assembling a formidable sum of campaign cash — much of the money coming from outside Hillsborough County. Warren benefited from what political observers have recognized as the increasingly Democratic leanings of the county and ultimately won the race by about 5,000 votes.
Can Perotti win?
“He certainly can win,” said Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida. “But he’s certainly at a disadvantage.”
The disadvantages include the Republican party’s lack of strength and organization in local elections in recent years, Paulson said. Much will also depend on the effect President Donald J. Trump’s reelection bid has on down-ballot Republican races.
But Perotti has some things going for him, like his native roots and his background in law enforcement, Paulson said. Although Warren can benefit from his status as the incumbent, it may not mean much to the many voters who never interact with the State Attorney’s Office.
Perotti’s biggest challenge will be to find an issue to use to convince voters not to re-elect Warren, Paulson said.
“There’s no reason for voters to switch if he’s doing everything right,” he said. “People won’t switch unless there’s a good reason to switch.”
Perotti said Wednesday that he has promised Warren a clean campaign.
“I’m going to do everything I can to earn people’s trust,” he said.